Although Éric Rohmer is sometimes rather unfortunately overlooked in favour of his contemporaries within the French New Wave, he is perhaps the one auteur from the period who maintained a distinct style and thematic approach to filmmaking across his career. While Jean-Luc Godard became increasingly political and iconoclastic as his career progressed and François Truffaut moved between genres, Rohmer’s commitment to a series of films – under the collective title of the Six Moral Tales – presented film viewers with an individual cinematic treatise on relationships by gravitating around the themes of desire and morality.
I thought audiences and producers would be more likely to accept my idea in this form than in another. Instead of asking myself what subjects were most likely to appeal to audiences. I persuaded myself that the best thing would be to treat the same subject six times over. In the hope that by the sixth time the audience would come to me.
– Éric Rohmer
Composed of six films – The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1962), Suzanne’s Career (1963), My Night at Maud’s (1969), La Collectionneuse (1967), Claire’s Knee (1970) and Love in the Afternoon (1972) – the Six Moral Tales all replay the same narrative conceit that portrays a married or committed man’s reaction to sexual temptation. The individual results are varied (his 1962 and 1963 short films are generally regarded as inferior); however, they collectively reveal a consistent thematic vision. With their naturalistic filming style and introspective, highly intellectual dialogue, they could easily be passed off as banal in some scenes and overbearingly didactic in others. This, thankfully, is not the case.
It is the notable addition of director of photography Néstor Almendros, who was responsible for the cinematography of all of the films from La Collectionneuse onwards, who instills the Six Moral Tales with a restrained and elegant sensuality. The sight of a young girl’s knee, bent as she climbs a ladder, inspires lust in Claire’s Knee, the tanned curves of the provocative Haydée arouses both desire and repulsion in La Collectionneuse, and the problematics of negotiating sexual passion in the face of conservative religious values is at the forefront of My Night at Maud’s. These gestures and dilemmas enliven Rohmer’s loquacious scripts with a subtle eroticism.
Indeed, it is the quiet and gentle eroticism of Rohmer’s cycle, which creates a tension with the underlying ideas of morality, that make the Six Moral Tales such compelling viewing. Although more than 30 years have passed since the films were released within a particular social period that harboured specific ideals, Rohmer’s films still resonate today. If only desire was still portrayed so eloquently.